The New York Timesleads with a look at how appealing an initial rejection of Social Security disability claims can now take as long as three years. About two-thirds of those who are initially turned down get the decision reversed on appeal, but the long wait times leave "hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory" waiting for a resolution while frequently facing mounting financial hardship. USA Todayleads with news that the police are investigating whether two separate shootings at religious institutions in Colorado were related. Early yesterday, a gunman killed two staff members at a missionary training center. Twelve hours later, and less than 100 miles away, a man shot several people (two died) at a megachurch before he was killed by a security guard.
The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with the Iraqi government urging the United States to take more proactive steps to talk directly with Iran in order to improve security in the region. Also yesterday, the police chief of a mostly Shiite province south of Baghdad was killed by a roadside bomb in what was the latest of several attacks against high-ranking officials in the region. The Los Angeles Timesleads with word that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office has not kept proper track of $1.7 million it has received from nonprofits to pay for "luxury-class jaunts" overseas. Instead of filing disclosure forms for the expenses, the governor's aides wrote down some of the costs but mostly kept them vague in a series of memos. When asked how they keep track of costs, the governor's attorney said: "Orally." The Washington Postalso leads locally with a look at the effects of moving parts of Walter Reed Army Medical Center to a facility in Maryland, which will increase traffic in an already congested area.
The backlog of appeals for Social Security disability has more than doubled since 2000, and claimants now have to wait an average of 500 days for a hearing. While waiting, many end up losing their homes or declaring bankruptcy since they often have nowhere to turn for help and can't work. The Social Security Administration wants to hire more appeals judges, but the plan has been delayed because of the budget fights currently going on between Congress and the White House.
Officials say there are several reasons why so many get the initial decision reversed, including the fact that judges see the claimants in person as opposed to the state agencies that make a decision based solely on paper records. So shouldn't the goal be to reduce the number of appeals in the first place? The NYT waits until well into the story to bring up the possibility and quickly dispatches it with the explanation from a Social Security administrator who says it would cost too much money, "and the Congress is not willing to fund that." It sounds like a thinly veiled dig at Congress, and it's just left hanging there until 14 paragraphs later, when the paper reminds readers that the "$151 billion health, education, and labor bill passed in November" that President Bush vetoed would have increased the agency's budget by $275 million.
The WP fronts a look at the way House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has inserted $96 million worth of pet projects into the 2008 budget. Despite more stringent accountability rules, the practice continues and congressional leaders "obtain a disproportionate share" of earmarks. According to an expert, this shows how "decisions are based on political muscle rather than project merit." And these earmarks often go to help political donors. To illustrate how the earmark money is often awarded without a careful overview of previous activity, the Post notes Hoyer inserted $450,000 for a music-education nonprofit in the 2008 education bill. That same nonprofit got half a million dollars in 2005, and it still hasn't delivered a report it was supposed to write for the Education Department last year.
Meanwhile, the LAT fronts a look at how it's not just congressional leaders that can help out campaign contributors with earmarks. From the early days of her Senate career, Hillary Clinton has never been shy about using earmarks, and since 2001 she has inserted more than $2.3 billion to federal appropriations bills. Clinton "has delivered $500 million worth of earmarks" that have specifically benefited 59 companies, the majority of which contributed to her campaign. Although the LAT makes clear that the junior senator from New York falls behind congressional leaders on quantity of earmarks, she still inserts more "than most others with her relatively low level of seniority." Additionally, Clinton has inserted more earmarks in the bills that have passed this year than any of the other presidential contenders.
In other campaign news, things were more cordial between the GOP contenders in last night's debate on Univision, the Spanish-language television network. The candidates mostly avoided attacking one another as they talked positively about legal immigration and emphasized they would work to prevent immigrants from getting into the country illegally. While everyone focuses on the immigration angle of the debate, the LAT picks up on the fact that the candidates talked positively about Iraq after most of them have spent the last several months trying to avoid the topic.
Everybody goes inside with news that former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided that his party will participate in next month's parliamentary elections. The decision was made after it became clear that Sharif wasn't going to be able to persuade Benazir Bhutto to join him in the boycott.
The LAT goes inside with a dispatch from the Space Investment Summit, where "rocket entrepeneurs" tried to convince venture capitalists they should put money into equipment for space travel. Attendees pitched everything from space suits to rocket propellant, but investors weren't impressed. "They're smoking crack," said one investor of an idea to create solar power satellites that could supply consumers on Earth.
So, which one is it? "Ex-President Stands Trial in Edgy Peru," says the NYT's headline of the proceedings that are scheduled to start today against former President Alberto Fujimori. The WP, on the other hand, sees things a little differently: "Peru Ambivalent as Ex-Leader Faces Trial for Massacres."